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Planning Ahead

It is January, a time normally given to resolutions for changes and improvements for the coming year. Most New Year’s resolutions are things that everyone knows are “right” but which are difficult to maintain and achieve under the normal of everyday life (i.e., lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier, swear less, be more patient, etc.). I believe that developing a detailed plan for construction quality control and building systems commissioning falls into this category.

I recently introduced commissioning to a project team consisting of the owner, the construction manager, and the design engineers. This was at approximately the design development stage of the project, and in order to coordinate the quality control activities (i.e., installation, startup, and equipment testing) with the systems-based commissioning activities, I asked questions about the plans for construction-phase quality control. The answers were disappointingly vague, especially from an experienced and reputable construction management firm.

The questions included the following:

  • How will equipment and component tests specified in Division 15 and Division 16 (pipe pressure tests, duct leakage tests, etc.) be tracked, witnessed, and documented?

  • How will the requirement that equipment startup be performed per the manufacturer’s recommendations be monitored, enforced, and documented?

  • How will the mechanical contractor, test and balance contractor, and controls contractor work be efficiently coordinated sufficiently ahead of project completion to ensure that systems operate as required prior to commissioning verification testing and building turnover?

All of these are normally-specified subcontractor activities that a construction manager is typically responsible for overseeing. They are also critical incremental steps in the process of achieving the desired systems operation at the end of the project. Without following these steps to make sure that the components of systems perform properly, the systems themselves are less likely to perform when the components are called upon to operate together.

These are activities whose enforcement and documentation have not been taken as seriously as they should in most construction projects over the past 10-15 years. In the commissioning meeting mentioned above, the representative from the construction management firm struggled to explain a definitive program for quality control. He was adamant, though, about how difficult the fast track building renovation was going to be and how his efforts needed to be spent meeting the schedule.

He essentially said that there wasn’t time to plan those details and that they would be worked out in the field. When asked who would be responsible for quality control, he wasn’t sure and noted that the project wasn’t big enough to warrant a full-time quality manager. I interpreted that to mean that the quality control aspects were given very little thought and would probably be delegated to someone with other full time responsibilities on the construction site. From a commissioning perspective, that was worrisome, because the success of the commissioning verification testing is dependent on the contractors providing the requisite quality control checks along the way. Without that, the verification testing at the end of construction will be the “gate” at which quality control issues are discovered – a point too late in the process for smooth and inexpensive resolution of those problems.

Why is it that there isn’t time to plan quality control activities, responsibilities, and documentation processes at the beginning of a project but there’s always time to address quality control failures at the end of the job? Or is there? Maybe the contractors’ experiences have been that when quality control problems are found at the end of construction the owner doesn’t have the appetite to enforce their correction, the owner’s move-in schedule doesn’t allow time for backing up and correcting the problems, or responsibility for the problems is vague enough that no one is contractually held responsible. Unfortunately, these scenarios are more common than not and typically end up with non-performing buildings being turned over to the owner’s operations staff to figure out.

Commissioning is about verification of dynamic systems operation and is not intended to replace the quality control responsibilities of the installing contractors. In fact, commissioning is dependent on quality control being performed conscientiously. (See December 1999 Getting it Right column for a discussion of the differences between commissioning and quality control.) I’d like to start off the new year with an appeal to contractors and construction managers to make a resolution to starting PLANNING for quality control and then enforcing those plans throughout construction. It will provide for positive and timely construction completion and smooth building turnover. As such, it will be less costly in both labor and materials than waiting to the end and, with crossed fingers, hoping that everything works.


Engineered Systems, January, 2004

Rebecca Ellis, PE, LEED AP, CCP, CxA
Questions & Solutions Engineering
1079 Falls Curve
Chaska, MN  55318